Q&A with Ricciardi Prize winner Thea Goldring

This year Ph.D student Thea Goldring was awarded the Ricciardi prize for her remarkable discovery of two troves of beautiful and meticulous drawings by the eighteenth-century French natural history illustrator, Carême de Fécamp. Here Ms. Goldring shares insights into her prize winning essay including how she became interested in Carême de Fécamp’s work and why we know so little about this artist.  A comprehensive catalogue with accompanying illustrations can be viewed on our digital resources page: here.


How did you become interested in the work of Carême de Fécamp?

I first became aware of Carême de Fécamp’s work during my research into Jean Chappe d’Auteroche’s 1768 publication Voyage en Sibérie fait par ordre du Roi en 1761, a beautifully illustrated account of Chappe’s expedition to Siberia to observe the transit of Venus before the Sun in 1761. At the time, I was interested in the artist Jean-Baptiste Le Prince, who produced the majority of the illustrations but became intrigued by Carême de Fécamp’s detailed mineralogical drawings for the publication, which are now in the Rosenbach in Philadelphia. In Michel Mervaud and Madeline Pinault-Sørensen’s invaluable critical edition of Chappe’s text, Pinault-Sørensen referenced a group of drawings by Carême de Fécamp of volcanic specimens in the papers of a scientist named Jean-Etienne Guettard held in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. As these drawings had never been reproduced and I was curious to see how they differed from the mineralogical drawings for Chappe, during a research trip in Paris I requested the appropriate manuscripts. I was immediately stunned by the visual quality and stunning technique of a few of these volcanic works. Moreover, while locating this set of drawings, I had observed that earlier folios contained a number of drawings that appeared also to be by Carême de Fécamp, though most of them were not signed. This second set did not appear in the archive’s catalogue nor in any description of Carême de Fécamp’s oeuvre, so I began to wonder if there might be, in fact, further drawings in the rest of Guettard’s papers (which are quite extensive). The hunt was on, so to speak.

Having identified an initial group of drawings in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, it was clear that most of Carême de Fécamp’s work had been produced for Guettard and that the scientist had possession of a considerable number of sheets when he died in early 1786. While I had rather stumbled across the first drawings, I now had a picture of Carême de Fécamp’s professional network, which gave me a good sense of where to look next. I had a strong suspicion that the archives of the Académie de Sciences contained another set of Guettard papers, since he had worked closely with the chemist Lavoisier. Lavoisier had not only held onto many of Guettard’s manuscripts but also donated his own papers to the Académie des Sciences. Sure enough, though not catalogued, the Académie had a second, smaller group of Guettard papers, which became accessible only in December. The Guettard manuscripts in the Académie have barely been touched since they arrived. Looking through these sheets for the first time and coming across further drawings, it truly felt as if I were the first person to handle these works since Guettard or perhaps even Carême de Fécamp himself.


Why did we know so little about this artist?

In general, scientific illustrators seem to be less studied than their peers who worked in other forms of illustration, and all artists who worked only in illustration tend to attract less attention than those who also produced autonomous works or paintings. For example, far more work has been done on Le Prince than Carême de Fécamp, even though both produced illustrations for Chappe’s Voyage en Sibérie.

Two other factors also contributed to Carême de Fécamp’s obscurity. First, he had previously been known only through the fourteen drawings he completed for Chappe—not enough to elicit interest. Second, most of his work remained among a scientist’s papers held in two institutions less frequented by art historians rather than in art collections or drawings cabinets. Even when earlier historians had looked through those scientific papers, they did not necessarily focus on the drawings nor recognize their art-historical significance. Carême de Fécamp and his work thus remained almost entirely off art history’s radar since the eighteenth century.


What were your key discoveries and what surprised you most about what you uncovered?

Personally, I was most surprised by just how good of an artist Carême de Fécamp could be. The few known works in the Rosenbach are from the 1760s when Carême de Fécamp had not yet developed his mature style or technique in ink and wash. By contrast, many of the new drawings date from the 1780s and reveal the mastery he developed in his medium over the years. Certain drawings such as the Corne d’Ammon are remarkable for the complexity of their technique, which combined layers of fluid washes, detailed texturing, and delicate passages of reserve. For me, acknowledging the quality of some of these drawings also calls into question their purely illustrative function. They utterly exceed what would have been useful for the printmaker Jean Robert, who had to transform Carême de Fécamp’s drawings into print—in many ways they are distinctly not made to be etched and engraved. Carême de Fécamp’s striking drawings have led me to think about him as a scientific artist rather than scientific illustrator.

Another of the surprises was the range of the drawings’ quality. With a larger number of extant works, it quickly becomes clear that in some cases Carême de Fécamp was intensely interested in the natural specimen he was drawing and painstakingly registered ever detail, texture, and physical quality, while in others he just wished to finish and send off the drawing. Some of the sheets are entirely unexciting, and what is more, Carême de Fécamp seems to have readily accepted that fact. While one might prefer that every single sheet is a masterpiece, this spectrum of quality provides fascinating insight into the realities of Carême de Fécamp’s working life, as well as his artistic and perhaps even scientific interests.


What more is there to learn about Carême de Fécamp?

There are two main avenues that I am interested in pursuing and hope might interest other researchers. One could say that they diverge along the “art” and “science” lines. The first concerns Carême de Fécamp’s artistic circles. Unlike most artists, we now have a much better sense of the scientists with whom Carême de Fécamp worked than the artists under whom he trained and with whom he was familiar. His initial course of instruction remains a mystery. Moreover, Carême de Fécamp was part of the group of intellectuals, artists, and scientists associated with Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orléans. Almost all of the natural specimens that Carême de Fécamp drew were from the Duc’s natural history cabinet, of which Guettard was in charge. Other artists such as Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle were also part of this circle. I have yet to find a connection between Carmontelle and either Guettard or Carême de Fécamp, but they all surely knew one another. Carême de Fécamp’s artistic relationships remain a fruitful area for future research and help raise broader questions about the type of exchanges taking place among the Duc’s dependents.

The second avenue concerns Carême de Fécamp’s quality as a scientific artist rather than illustrator. The drawings contained in Guettard’s papers not only offer a unique perspective onto the practice of picturing science in the eighteenth century but also raise questions about Carême de Fécamp’s role within this process. His drawings’ visual excess of detail encourages us to rethink how they functioned within Guettard’s and Carême de Fécamp’s shared scientific endeavor—they were clearly not confined simply to illustrating Guettard’s texts. In my future work, I will be considering how Carême de Fécamp’s drawings may have offered their own form of research into the natural world.

And, of course, one could always find more drawings.